Dr. Fraser- Point of View
December 18, 2009
Continuing the Post-Referendum Talk

WE ARE ONLY a week away from Christmas but Vincentians are still in a post-Referendum phase which will, no doubt, shortly bow to the festive season but return as the political parties and people continue to mull over what happened on November 25 and prepare themselves for the big day ahead. Dr. Gonsalves said that he would not now be constrained because the rejection of the constitution leaves him with the option of calling general elections whenever he feels.{{more}} There is however no doubt that the politics of the country would be influenced by what happened on that momentous day, including Gonsalves’ thinking about the date for elections. There are indeed some voices of caution being expressed in light of efforts by other countries to move to constitutional reform. The Attorney General of Antigua did make it clear that their changes would be limited to securing a move toward accepting the CCJ and not involve the major changes contemplated in the St.Vincent and the Grenadines case.

SVG had more attention paid to it in the region than it had for a long time, but clearly some of the commentators who were prepared to comment on the results of the Referendum did not have a clue what they were talking about. This is why I must compliment Anesia Baptiste on her letter to the Caribbean Net News on December 8 which was captioned “The people decided! Stop misrepresenting Us”. She dealt with four issues, stating that “The people did not…vote to keep the queen and not have our own head of state in a president, as I’ve heard it being presented;…this talk about Vincentians preferring to stay behind in colonialism rather than moving forward is not true; …the proposed bill has also been touted as one which effectively restored the death penalty…The truth is the proposal did not restore the death penalty as the death penalty is still the punishment for murder recognized on our law books.” She also made the point that it was misleading to say that the proposed bill would have automatically put us on the CCJ if we had said yes. Her letter was built around those points which needed to be made to correct a lot of the loose talk.

There was a fascination with monarchy, an infatuation really, with the Queen. The Associated Press on the day of the referendum captioned one of its news releases, “St.Vincent Votes on Ties with the Queen.” On the following day after the results were known it stated, “The Queen of England will still rule – formally at least..” and then made the point that “both of the country’s parties have sought to replace the queen with a President as head of State.” This came after its caption that conveyed a different kind of message. But many other commentators failed to understand this and moreover conveyed the impression that the retention of the Queen was a major factor in the results of the election. The Queen does not intrude into our lives. In fact, she is not a major factor in our lives. Many Vincentians, for example, see and relate to our Governor-General not as a representative of the Queen but as a Vincentian. If the referendum was about retaining the Queen as head of state the results would have been different, but it was a part of a package that included a number of other things that were of concern to a large number of Vincentians. It is only a matter of time before we take this step and rid ourselves of the monarchy. The monarchy represents one of “the last bastions of the colonial ties” as someone described it.

Then there is the Privy Council and the Caribbean Court of Justice. Anesia is right. The constitution was not going to lead to an automatic transfer to the Caribbean Court of Justice. There was absolutely no mention of the Caribbean Court of Justice in the proposed constitution. It referred, as Baptiste indicates, to “another court either with OECS or CARICOM countries or any other country or countries.” Even Dr Selwyn Ryan made this mistake in an article in the Trinidad Express on December 13. He said that proposed constitution would have lead to the replacement of the Privy Council by the Caribbean Court of Justice. He also mentions the establishment of a Public Accounts Committee as though this was a new invention. Ryan goes on to make the point that in his view the Vincentian voters answered the wrong question, “viz whether they wanted the National Democratic Party (meaning of course the New Democratic Party) or the ruling Unity Labour Party led by Prime Minister Ralph Gonzalez.” This ties in with the views of a number of other persons but disregards the fact that there were serious concerns with the proposed constitution which related to how people viewed the politics of the country.

The Stabroek News of Guyana carried some interesting comments, no doubt influenced by the politics of Guyana. In its December 6th edition it states, “Noting the St.Vincent Opposition NDP’s warning about the enlargement of prime ministerial powers, WPA Co-leader Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine says the results clearly show that the Vincentians ‘quite wisely’ refused to consent to the ‘enlargement of executive power’ in any form.” In its December 2nd edition it made reference to having the referendum close to the impending general elections and then went on to state “So the referendum took on all the partisanship of a normal St.Vincent campaign, with the ULP asserting the progressive nature of the constitution and a substantial consensus around it, and the NDP basing its campaign on Gonsalves’ alleged mania for power and related political sins. They insisted now, after six years of debate on the matter, that he was really using the referendum, set at that specific time, as a trial run for the coming elections. A sentiment apparently emerging during the campaign within the ULP ranks was indeed that they did not expect to get the required 67%, but hoped for a showing as respectably close to their proportion of the vote in recent elections. This would likely have strengthened the NDP’s perception of Gonsalves’ strategy.” Reference was made also to Gonsalves’ effort at consensus making which ‘clearly has not been successful, as the campaign and the subsequent result showed, since the process turned into a traditional battle of the parties in a country known for a certain degree of bitterness in its political life.”

Lloyd Noel in an article in Caribbean Net News on December 2, admitted that he did not have sufficient knowledge of what was happening on the ground to stick his neck out but felt comfortable making the following comment: “…the fact remains that the majority of the people who matter and who are in the positions to say yea or nay for making things happens (sic) that will be affecting their lives and their living conditions for decades down the road, they very positively and loudly said “No Way Doc… the people who mattered and who are facing the fire and can therefore feel the heat, they had other ideas and responded with a resounding No.”

I am of the view that news of the happenings on the ground in SVG had never really captured the interest of the regional news media in the way it has for some of our neighbours. It is interesting that the results shocked some of the more prominent commentators in the region who always viewed our country from a distance without understanding the dynamics at play. One gets the impression that some of the regional media people who had been here during the period of the Referendum would now be better able to appreciate the politics of the country and make better sense of it.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.